Two teeth, or: A reminder

My 6-year-old lost two teeth in one day;
and, as always, she had something to say.
To her father the blogger,
she said: Might this not augur
a sweet poem about me- sans cliché?

Dedicated with love to my precious little daughter, who asked me to write a poem on the occasion of her losing two teeth last Friday and then repeated her request to me again several days later (an hour ago).

Fairies, or: Favors

On Friday, our six-year-old lost her 7th and 8th baby teeth within the span of a few hours. The first had been noticeably wobbling so we weren’t surprised at the event when she bit down into a crunchy cookie, but the second one came out unexpectedly, while we were having Shabbat dinner. We were both shocked when our daughter suddenly exclaimed, “Another tooth just fell out! Does that mean the tooth fairy will give me two presents?”

After the excitement had died down, she followed up by asking us the classic children’s question about the existence of the tooth fairy. She’s no dummy, and she’d heard some of her preschool classmates, as well as one of her teachers from last year, speaking about the tooth fairy as nothing more than mere fantasy. Now, personally, I’m not one to encourage anyone’s belief in fictional characters of any sort; but my wife likes the idea of encouraging a child’s sense of wonder and expresses disappointment whenever I suggest the possibility of their non-existence. That’s why I carefully stayed quiet. “I don’t know much about the tooth fairy,” I said, “You’ll have to ask Mama’chka. She knows more about it.”

Cleverly, my wife managed to circumvent the question with a discussion of whether or not a child should receive two gifts for two teeth that fall out on the same day, and our daughter forgot about her question. On Shabbat morning, after waking up during the night in excitement and anticipation to check for favors beneath her pillow, our little girl awoke early to find two separate little gifts waiting for her – and neither of the two teeth she’d lost.

Fallen leaf headrest
Shifted gingerly by fae
Reveals dawning joy

The above is my second attempt at a classic haibun (here is my first one), which includes a traditional haiku, entailing the following:

  • haibun includes 1 to 3 prose paragraphs that must be a true accounting, not fiction,
    followed by a traditional haiku which MUST:
    • be nature based
    • be three lines (5 – 7 – 5 syllables OR short-long-short)
    • have a direct or subtle relationship to your prose paragraphs: enrich the prose without condensing or summarizing it
    • include a KIGO (word or phrase associated with a particular season).
    • although only 3 lines in length, it must have two parts including a shift, an added insight. Japanese poets include a KIREJI (cutting word).
      • BUT there’s no linguistic equivalent in the English language therefore punctuation creates the cut: we can use a dash, comma, an ellipsis, an exclamation point. Sometimes it’s simply felt in the pacing or reading.

Holiday thoughts: Jewish v. Not

Chanukah ended, and though I haven’t written a word about it yet, I have been mulling something over quite a bit.

Traditionally, there’s a song that Jews sing after reciting the blessings and lighting the candles of the chanukiah 🕎. This song is called Ma’oz Tzur (“Strong Rock”), and there exists a popular, non-literal English translation called “Rock of Ages”.

Here is the full song in Hebrew. There are six stanzas:

This is a tune that I find myself humming throughout the year, even when it isn’t Chanukah; I just love it. Unfortunately, I don’t know the words to all of the stanzas by heart so I can only sing it with a prayer book in front of me.

While I speak Hebrew passably, it is not my mother tongue, and memorizing multi-stanza songs in Hebrew takes me some effort. On the other hand, as I observe my daughter, born and bred in the Jewish homeland, I delight in her Hebrew fluency. Also, traditional Jewish songs like Ma’oz Tzur have infused every moment of her comprehensively Jewish life in Israel. She hears Jewish songs at home; at school; at the mall; in taxis; pretty much everywhere.


Growing up in the USA, Christmas carols on the radio and Halloween songs at school were the norm for me, and while I never thought twice about my diaspora reality, these were not my family’s holidays.

I still remember the messaging that was directed at me in the eighties and the nineties when I was a child, attending Hebrew school (an afterschool program) at my synagogue. We were discouraged from trick-or-treating on Halloween; from marrying non-Jews; from falling for the wiles of Christian missionaries; etc.

This messaging was born of the Jewish establishment’s fear of Jewish assimilation, which was heightening, along with the rate of intermarriage (i.e., Jews marrying gentiles) in the USA. (As the years rolled on, the Jewish establishment gradually lost this messaging battle and had to find new strategies. Assimilation proved itself unstoppable.)

By the way, there is nothing new under the sun. You see, the Jewish community’s concern over the threat of assimilation is millennia old. The Chanukah story, which took place in the 2nd century BCE, was no less than one of a vicious and bloody Jewish civil war over Hellenization. In other words, Jewish traditionalists were pitted against Jewish Hellenizers who wanted to adopt many elements of Greek life and culture. You can guess who won.

It’s important, I think, to put this historic Jewish concern over assimilation into perspective. As of 2015, there are some 2.168 billion Christians, 1.599 billion Muslims, and less than 15 million Jews worldwide.


I honestly don’t quite know why I care so passionately about my people; but I do, and I have cared for as long as I can remember.

As a modern, I support and can respect people’s personal choices, as long as they do not cause harm to others; and, believe me, I well understand the appeal of assimilation for all minority groups. In all honesty, I was once very judgmental of more assimilated Jews, but my judgmentalism has profoundly dissipated over the last decade or so, as I’ve increasingly begun to appreciate and seek to understand the contexts of people’s decisions. You do you; I do me. Let’s aim to understand one another.

On the other hand, as a Jew, I am deeply invested in my people’s continued existence, for the Jewish people is my extended family. So what can I do to maximize the odds that my child(ren) will not assimilate?

One of the best answers I have found to this question is quite simple: I can raise my child(ren) in the Jewish state of Israel, in a society which is mostly Jewish, which celebrates Jewish holidays, which speaks a Jewish language…

I am certain, thankful and proud that my daughter will not need to read the stanzas from a prayer book when she sings Ma’oz Tzur with her children during Chanukah.

Social skills taught at preschool

The Jerusalem municipality offers a service to selected children at preschools to help them improve their social skills, as I just found out today.

Upon my dropping off our daughter at preschool this morning, the head teacher asked to speak with me and told me that she had selected her as one of seven children to meet twice weekly with a specialist to develop her social skills. She handed me a permission slip, which I will be returning signed to the preschool this afternoon.

We can tell, and the teacher confirmed to me this morning, that our child’s social skills are stronger this year than they were the year before. Still, for all of her innate intelligence, she is often awkward around other children, and there are some likely reasons for this.

First of all, as an only child, our daughter spends a disproportionate amount of time with me and her mother, having conversations with us at a fairly high level about complex and sometimes philosophical matters (she’s not quite six-years-old yet). Relatedly, she has an incredibly vivid and active imagination and regularly engages in conversations with her group of imaginary friends who live in her rich, imaginary universe of heroines, heroes, and villains. If other children aren’t interested in hearing her fantasy stories, she dramatically loses interest in playing with them.

Also, she speaks well in three languages and thinks about the intersections between these languages. She thinks about which words have similar and dissimilar meanings in Hebrew, Russian, and English; about which words rhyme; about what letter sounds exist in her three languages; about how some expressions can be translated directly from one language to another, whereas others cannot… This is only my personal perspective, but our daughter seems to often be bored in conversations with other children.

Still, it is abundantly clear that our daughter yearns for meaningful relationships with other children. Whenever we go to the playground, she always expresses a desire to play games with others, but she never quite knows how to initiate interactions with them. She’s not shy; that’s not the problem. But she can’t seem to keep conversations going for long with other children and tends to bore quickly of their children’s games and conversations.

Our preschool teacher is a lovely woman with many years of professional experience in education, and she confirmed and affirmed all of my sentiments. It was difficult, she told me, for her to select only seven of her students for this special program, but she decided to primarily favor those preschoolers who would be entering first grade next year, as she wants them to be maximally prepared for primary school.

In any case, I feel very grateful for our daughter to have this opportunity. I know that socializing with other children is something that she needs to work on for the sake of her happiness; and while I burst with pride in describing her exceptional communication and critical thinking skills, I also worry that these set her awkwardly apart from the majority of her peers.

First grade for my Israeli daughter

Thank goodness for Israel

Moving [back] to Israel as an adult has had its ups and downs for me, but I can honestly say that I’ve never doubted my decision for one simple reason: our daughter’s Jewish upbringing and education.

I’ve written in the past about the simple comfort and fulfilment of living as a Jew in the Jewish State:

Israeli Jews speak Hebrew, the Jewish tongue. The State’s work week runs from Sunday through Thursday (just like in the Arab states), and its national holidays include all of the Jewish religious holidays…

Even my daughter’s Jewish education is of no serious concern, unlike it would have been elsewhere…

Every moment is a Jewish moment here. The notion of assimilation is… laughable.


A moment of truth

Our daughter will be entering first grade next year.

This means that we will be selecting a school for her and thus making the first of several major decisions governing her education. In Israel, the education system consists of three tiers: primary (grades 1–6), middle school (grades 7–9) and high school (grades 10–12). The major decisions about schooling have to be made for 1st grade and 7th grade.

If any of you would like to know about the different tracks of Jewish education available here in Israel, you can take a look at what I wrote in a previous post of mine; I laid everything out there. As always, if you are curious to know more, I would be happy to answer your questions. However, for the purposes of this post, only two school systems are relevant for us:

  1. State-Secular;
  2. State-Orthodox

Nota bene:

Most people in Israel would translate ‘State-Orthodox’ as: ‘State-Religious’, but this is not quite accurate. For historic and political reasons, the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations (Conservative, Reform, and others) continue to have a very limited footprint in Israel. For this reason, the Hebrew word ‘dati’, which means: ‘religious’ has long come to mean: ‘Orthodox’ in the minds of Hebrew speakers.

However, in reality, an individual could be a ‘religious Conservative’ or ‘religious Reform’ Jew, and(!) one could also be a ‘non-religious Orthodox’ Jew. This is why I more accurately term Israel’s ‘religious’ Jewish schools as: ‘Orthodox’, for they only represent a very limited range of flavors of Jewish religious expression.

This may be a lot to take in for those who are not very familiar with Jewish life and culture, but if you have any questions for me – I will do my best to answer them.


So… our two school options are:

State-Secular

State-secular elementary and high schools provide a general studies education, including a minimal amount of Tanakh (Bible) study. Some of these schools offer a limited Jewish enrichment program.

State-Orthodox

State-Orthodox elementary and high schools offer a dual curriculum of Judaic and general studies. There is a commitment to both a Torah-observant lifestyle and to the values of religious Zionism.


Our take on Jewish tradition

Despite observing the Sabbath and keeping a kosher kitchen, my wife and I are very non-ideological. We don’t believe that all Jews “have to” follow traditional Torah law. We don’t think that being “religious” or being “Jewish” necessarily makes one “good”. At home, we don’t require our daughter to participate in any religious norms and rituals unless her choices would affect the entire household.

Both of us, having had secular or non-Jewish upbringings, chose for ourselves to live our lives according to Jewish tradition. Our extended families are mostly comprised of non-religious Jews and gentiles, and we embrace them as they are, just as they do us.

Personally, I harbor deep skepticism about the theological underpinnings of all faiths, as well as of the involvement of any supernatural power in our lives. My wife is definitely more of a theist than I am, but she’s very much a pluralist, in the sense that she doesn’t believe that any particular religion has a monopoly on humankind’s access to the Almighty.

Still, for ourselves, we have chosen to live in Israel because we love being Jews. We are proud of our national identity and ancestries. We both find great beauty in many of our rituals and holidays, and we are both reluctant to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” when it comes to Jewish tradition.


Our take on secularism

Neither one of us is uncomfortable with secular life. Most of our friends and family, as it happens, are not religious by their own definitions.

Also, by virtue of our daughter growing up in Israel, it’s highly unlikely that she would marry a non-Jew, which is of concern to me in particular. In principle, therefore, why should it matter how familiar she becomes with Jewish texts and history? Her national identity is essentially guaranteed.

The reality is that the level of ignorance among secular Jewish Israelis on all subjects related to traditional Judaism is very high. They would be, of course, able to navigate the Torah and other historic Jewish texts in their original forms because their fluency in modern Hebrew would enable them to decipher Biblical Hebrew and its later incarnations… but they usually don’t care to do so.

Sadly, we live in a very polarized and reactionary world, and this is no less true of religion than it is of politics. State and religion are not separate in Israel and infringe upon the lives of its secular citizens, and Orthodoxy is broadly accepted in Israeli society as the “one true faith”, so many secular Israeli Jews are turned off to Judaism as a historic way of life. By virtue of living in Israel, they are members of a predominantly Jewish society and participate in what one might call “social” religion, but I dare say that for most of them, being Jewish in the Jewish State is not so much their choice as their default.

Now, I well know that this is a controversial thing to say, and there are plenty of people who will disagree with me. And, yes, I am aware of the growing trend among some young secular Israelis to study traditional Jewish texts and incorporate Jewish rituals into their lives. Still, I maintain that this is a tiny minority in Israel, and I believe that my perspective is borne out in the curriculum taught to secular Israeli school children, which contributes to their general ignorance of traditional Judaism.


But, but…

But the Orthodox schools are run by Orthodox Jews.

😮‍💨

I cannot speak to other religious communities, but I assume that the following also holds true outside of the Jewish world: Jewish religious schools are operated by and taught by people who are more religiously conservative and less favorably predisposed towards secularism and skepticism than the families who send their children to these schools.

Prayer is obligatory, girls are required to wear skirts, classes are only co-ed until 4th or 6th grade, and the Torah is taught to the students as the undeniable Truth, rather than as a historical cultural document.

Ugh.

Now, luckily for us, we live in Jerusalem. Living here is expensive, but there are great advantages, including a wider range of religious communities than can be found in many other places throughout Israel. This means that several of the local Orthodox schools are somewhat religiously liberal, given the communities that they serve. This means that in our neighborhood we are not the only ones with one foot firmly planted in the non-religious world. This means that teachers are somewhat more prepared for students and parents to push back on them.

We’ve done our research, and it seems that there are three or four Orthodox schools in the area that are open-minded enough for our tastes. That is exactly the number of schools we are required to register for, so we are not left with any flexibility (outside of Jerusalem, we would have even fewer suitable alternatives, if any at all). Hopefully these schools are good enough. Hopefully our daughter will be okay.


Providing what we cannot give

Ultimately, parents supplement their children’s school educations, and the reality is that we cannot give our daughter the substantive Jewish education that we never received ourselves.

That is what it comes down to.

Priorities.

He was supposed to teach her math

I took notice that our 5⅔-year-old was using the word ‘half’ and the word ‘part’ interchangeably and decided that the time had come to set her straight on the matter. She’s quite bright and loves learning new concepts so it wasn’t at all challenging to pique her curiosity. However, she hadn’t yet encountered fractions so, for simplicity’s sake, I suggested that we should consider only the even numbers, which she knows about. On a piece of paper, we wrote down 2, 4, 6, and 8. And then:

2 = _ + _
4 = _ + _
6 = _ + _
8 = _ + _

Unsurprisingly, she caught on quickly. After filling in the blanks together, I drew a circle for each of the four equations: one circle divided into two, one divided into four, and so on. How many slices do we need for half of a circle if there are eight slices? Four! What if there are six slices, like in this circle? Three! And over here, with four slices? Two! Wonderful! Good job! You’ve got it.

I also drew a 5th circle and divided it into two unequal pieces – one noticeably larger than the other. See? Here we have two pieces – but these are not halves. You can say that these are parts of the circle, or sections of the circle, but it would be inaccurate to call them ‘halves’. Do you know why? Because they’re not the same size? Exactly!

At that point, I decided to push the lesson a bit further. After all, she had just recently crossed the threshold from 5½ to 5⅔, right? My intention was to show her that the twelve months of the year (which she knows) could be divided into half (6) and also into thirds (4), thereby explaining why I had just recently started calling her a 5⅔-year-old.

So I began by explaining that we would first write down the number 3, and then add another 3 for the next number, which she said should be 6. And then? 9? Yep. And then? 12! After we’d written those numbers down, I jotted down:

 3 = _ + _ + _
 6 = _ + _ + _
 9 = _ + _ + _
12 = _ + _ + _

At this point, she began to noticeably tune out due to mental exertion. We managed to fill in the equations, but by the time I had drawn four circles (for 3, 6, 9, and 12) and divided them into the corresponding numbers of slices, I realized that I was pretty much doing the math exercise on my own. Then, even when I attempted to close out the activity by reinforcing that two 1’s gives us 2, whereas three 1’s give us 3, meaning that 1 is both ½ of 2 and ⅓ of 3, her mind had already wandered, and she was off to another activity.

I’m pretty sure that she still doesn’t understand what one-third is.

* * *

I enjoy speaking, writing, reading, typing, watching movies, and playing various word and story games with my daughter. We are raising a trilingual child, and I am both fascinated by and very proud of her language development. It’s incredibly rewarding for me to know that I am shaping her development and giving her an invaluable gift in this way. Never before have I been so invested in any project.

As it happens, I have an engineering degree, but most of what I learned back in college has long since faded from my memory banks for lack of any application. To the extent that I am good at math, it’s almost entirely due to the comfort with numbers that Papa inculcated in me from a very young age, and, of course, I wasn’t the only son who benefited from his tutelage. My brother, not long after Papa died, reflected upon his appreciation that Papa had been around to help him with his university math studies, which led him to receive a minor in mathematics.

My wife and I can both teach our daughter essential math skills, and I can even pass down many of the same math tricks that Papa once taught me, but… math isn’t enjoyable for me and it doesn’t come naturally. I’d rather be teaching her to write poetry. I’d rather be… I’d rather be… teaching her about mythical creatures of legends native to various world cultures. Perhaps some of those same colorful, magical creatures were good at mathematics themselves, but it has never excited me.

* * *

Not so long ago, on the 2nd anniversary of Papa’s death, I lit a 24 hour memorial candle in his memory. Lighting such a yahrzeit candle is a universal Jewish custom but not a requirement of religious law. Many people also light yahrzeit candles on those Jewish holidays when we traditionally recite the Yizkor prayer for our deceased loved ones, including Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret, both of which we celebrated just recently. I did not attend communal prayer services at shul for the holidays (COVID-19 is my excuse), and so I did not recite the Yizkor prayer, but I did light candles on all of the holidays… even including the recent holiday of Sukkot, which has no associated memorial prayers for the dead.

I’ve been attracted to candles and to fire for longer than I remember, but I never made a point of lighting them until the time came to commemorate my Papa, and, unexpectedly, I found it comforting.

Now, I don’t put much stock in belief in the supernatural. I believe that it is possible (and even likely) that some supernatural, omnipotent Force exists that created everything… but that’s about the extent of it. If somebody somehow proved that such a Force doesn’t exist (which I don’t believe to be possible), this wouldn’t be particularly disconcerting to me. It’s okay with me if God’s existence is disproven because I don’t believe that God or any other supernatural Force actually cares about us.

Still, the candle flame does excite my imagination in how it licks at the air around it. It’s soothing to imagine my Papa’s neshamah flickering in its flame, and I’m hardly the first human being to relate emotionally to fire as a living thing. In fact, as I now write about this, I find myself stirred to write some poetry about it… perhaps I’ll do that later. [addendum: here’s the poem I wrote later]

And so I’ve taken it upon myself to light a yahrzeit candle for Papa every Friday evening before Shabbat starts. For me, this has nothing to do with religious obligation, nor anything to do with faith. Rather, it’s simply comforting. It feels nice to spend a minute focused on remembering Papa. It feels nice to wake up on Saturday morning and see his candle still burning.

Of course, if I continue lighting a candle every week, I suppose I’ll have to come up with something else to do for Papa’s yahrzeit… but, unlike math, imagination has always been my strong suit.

Ethical will: Raising individuals

Given that I put a premium on being true to one’s self, one would be correct to assume that this value fundamentally informs my parenting priorities. As is nearly always the case with my ethics, this is no novel notion of mine.

Let us look at Proverbs 22:6 together:

חֲנֹ֣ךְ לַ֭נַּעַר עַל־פִּ֣י דַרְכּ֑וֹ גַּ֥ם כִּֽי־יַ֝זְקִ֗ין לֹֽא־יָס֥וּר מִמֶּֽנָּה׃ Train a youth according to his way; he will not swerve from it even in old age.

Perhaps I should end this post here. What have I to contribute of substance to this ancient wisdom? Should it not be obvious that all children have their own strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and ways of understanding? That they deserve the same opportunities to grow into and actualize themselves, which every single parent would like to have for themselves?

* * *

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-88) did, in fact, illustrate this idea in the context of the Torah’s tale of the twins Esau and Jacob. Why, he wondered, did one twin follow their parents’ path and the other (Esau) go astray? Rav Hirsch suggested that this was due to a grave mistake perpetrated by the brothers’ parents Isaac and Rebecca.

[A BRIEF ASIDE: Something I profoundly appreciate about our Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) is that it doesn’t shy away from or attempt to smooth over the shortcomings and failings of our matriarchs, patriarchs, kings, prophets, and heroes. Rather, we are to derive life lessons from their terrible mistakes.]

Rav Hirsch was bothered by something in Genesis 25:27. Let’s take a look:

וַֽיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים׃ And the youths grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field; but Jacob was a mild man who sat in tents.

Why, wondered Rav Hirsch, does the verse say that the twins were different only after they grew up? Was it not obvious that their natures were very different long before they came of age? Based on this verse, the great rabbi deduced that Rebecca and Isaac raised the twins in exactly the same way. Their childhoods had been identical. He wrote:

כל עוד היו קטנים, אף אחד לא העניק תשומת לב להבדלים בפנימיותם (עיין פסוק כד); נתנו להם אותו גידול ואותו חינוך. הוריהם שכחו כלל גדול בחינוך: ״חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל־פִּי דַרְכּוֹ״ וגו׳ (משלי כב, ו). As long as they were little, No one paid attention to the differences in their inner natures (see verse 24); they gave them the same upbringing and the same education. Their parents forgot a big rule in education: ‘Educate a youth according to his way…’ (Proverbs 22:6).

Rav Hirsch brought his point home as follows:

״ויגדלו הנערים״: רק לאחר שהבנים גדלו והפכו לאנשים, הופתעו כולם לגלות, ששני האחים, שמרחם אחד יצאו, ואשר קיבלו את אותה השגחה, התחנכו באותה הדרך, ולמדו אותם לימודים; היו כה שונים בטבעיהם ובפעולותיהם. “And the youths grew up”: Only after the boys grew up and became adults was everyone surprised to discover that the two brothers, who had come out of one womb, and who had received the same supervision; been educated the same way; and been taught the same studies, were so different in their natures and actions.

According to Hirsch’s lengthy exegesis, the upbringing and education received by the twin brothers suited Jacob but not Esau, which explains why Esau did not grow up to become a righteous man.

* * *

One of the amazing aspects of watching our daughter grow up is our ever-developing familiarity with her temperament and personality.

When she was yet a baby and even a toddler, I harbored skepticism regarding the extent to which her actions and reactions were anything more than behaviors common to most, if not all, children at those ages. Now I know that I was very wrong.

I recall a video from her daycare when she was but a one-year-old, in which she vehemently shook her head and rejected a pair of maracas offered to her during a holiday celebration. Every other child seated in that little circle was happy to grab some maracas from the music teacher and shake them. At the time, this incident mostly amused me.

Since then, based upon my and my wife’s observations, and based upon the feedback that we’ve received from multiple daycare and preschool teachers, I have come to recognize that our daughter often likes to play independently from other children and come up with activities for herself. She does not always want to play with others, and she does not always want to do what others are doing. She doesn’t have problems socializing with her peers; she is simply aware of her need for personal space. Now, given our worldviews, we’ve never needed reassurance that this is anything other than perfectly healthy behavior, but multiple teachers have felt the need to underscore: “Don’t worry, this is totally fine!”

The above is but an example of a character trait, which exhibited itself in our daughter’s behavior at a very early age. There are, of course, many, many others – and, as Rav Hirsch expounded upon in his Torah commentary, this is true for all children.

It is for parents to observe their children and fathom them. Our approaches to rearing and education must be adapted accordingly.